By Kim Fuess

If one of your goals in endurance riding is to improve your horse’s finishing time, the use of negative splits is a great way to shorten your ride time. Not many endurance riders have a horse that is talented enough to run in the front for an entire endurance ride. There are even fewer riders who want to ride this way because of the safety and horse welfare concerns.

I have found that riding in negative splits has been an effective way to “race” in endurance riding. I am sure that many successful riders use this strategy in distance riding and there are probably several more who ride in negative splits and don’t even realize they are doing it.


Negative splits defined

What does riding in negative splits mean? Very simply it means riding the first half of the event at a slower pace than the second half. Marathon runners, sprinters, swimmers, and other human athletes are very familiar with the concept of negative splits. They purposely run or swim the first few meters, yards, or miles at a slower than average pace easing into their normal pace to conserve for a strong finish.

One has to be disciplined in the heat of competition to be able to keep a slower pace when your body is telling you to go faster. The same could be said for our horses in the first few miles of a ride.


How to use negative splits

I am sure there are several ways to use this concept in endurance riding but I will share how I effectively use negative splits when I ride. I try to use negative splits at every ride. I always start my rides slowly, whether it is with my green horse during his first season or my experienced competition horse. A slower than normal pace at the start gives the muscles, tendons, and ligaments time to warm up and will avoid early lactic acid build up. This also gives me the opportunity to get a feel for my horse. If something is not quite right that day, whether it is a metabolic problem or a gait abnormality, I may be able to catch it early before there is much damage.

As the ride progresses, I can ease into that horse’s normal pace and if I have enough horse left toward the end of the ride I can pick up the pace. For many endurance riders this is the normal way they ride at every event, even when they are not competing for placing.

I use negative splits as my main competitive strategy and have been very successful in improving my finishing placements with several different horses. “Coming from behind” works well for the goals I set which are to finish as close to the top as possible with a sound and happy horse.

It seems I run into problems when I don’t use this as part of my strategy. My last metabolic pull was when I chose not to ride my first 25 miles slower. I have several top 10 finishes in which I was in the high teens or twenties coming into the first vet check and was able to pass riders on the second half of the ride.

Using negative splits effectively to “race” as opposed to finish takes a little more effort on the part of the rider. Coach Emmett Hines of H2Ouston Swims writes, “The place to train for N/S swimming is in your workouts–every day. You must be constantly aware and what pace you are swimming. Without constant feedback you cannot learn this effectively. As your coach, I can offer you an iron clad guarantee: If you do not know your splits on a clock it was not a negative split.”


Know your horse’s pace

As an endurance rider, you must know what your horse’s “normal” pace is on all types of terrain. How can you make an educated decision on ride day on how slow or fast to adjust your pace if you haven’t practiced during training? You have to know what the pace feels like or use a GPS. Nothing is harder for the competitive rider than to let riders pass because you are maintaining a slower than normal pace. From your longer training rides you will also learn how long and how far your horse can go at a faster than average pace.

On ride day, use the feedback from the vet checks, a heart rate monitor, the horse’s attitude, etc. as you increase the pace on the second half of the ride. The goal of negative splits is to cross the finish line with a strong horse while averaging a faster pace the second half of the ride.

After my metabolic pull this year at the Fire Mountain 75, I decided to document my pace at the next ride, the 20 Mule Team 65. Using a GPS during the entire ride, I decided to increase the pace only if the horse was recovering within four minutes at every vet check. I rode no faster than 8 mph to the first vet check. The recovery was within two minutes. I then never let the horse go faster than 9.5 miles per hour to the lunch stop. The horse recovered in less than two minutes.

From the lunch stop to the third vet check I never rode faster than 10.5 miles per hour. The recovery time was still less than two minutes. From the third vet check to the finish I allowed the horse to move up to 12.5 miles per hour. Again my recovery was within two minutes at the finish.

At the Fire Mountain ride, less than a month before and on basically the same terrain, I probably averaged 9-10 miles per hour the first half and had backed off to 7-8 mph the second half. At the last vet check my horse had a very long recovery time and was stressed and was pulled. I am sure that I averaged about the same overall pace at both rides. The difference was in the way I rode the splits.

Using negative splits is a great way to move up your horse up from completing rides to riding for placement. It gives riders the opportunity to monitor their horse’s overall condition during competition before allowing their horse to run at a faster than normal pace. Riders learn to use strategy over speed or the horse’s natural ability. If you do your homework and use negative splits as part of your competition strategy most of the time it will pay off.

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